Dr Nikola’s Horrid Laboratory

Wellcome anatomy museum
Cooke’s School of Anatomy , 192- . Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The narrator Braithwaite escapes (as he thinks) from imprisonment, and enters Dr Nikola’s private room-cum-laboratory, where what he sees makes his ‘blood run cold’  and his ‘flesh creep as it had never done before’.

Round the walls were … more than a dozen bottles, each of which contained what looked, to me, only too much like human specimens pickled in some light-coloured fluid… Between these gigantic but more than horrible receptacles were numberless smaller ones holding other and even more dreadful remains; while on pedestals and stands, bolt upright and reclining, were skeletons of men, monkeys, and quite a hundred sorts of animals. 

 Other collections visible included all sorts of weaponry and methods of murder, and

Mixed up with them were implements for every sort of wizardry known to the superstitious; from old-fashioned English love charms to African Obi sticks, from spiritualistic planchettes to the most horrible of Fijian death potions. 

Dr Nikola is not the only living being present, as he bends over his work of dissecting what may (or may not) be a monkey. He has an albino dwarf assistant, and his ‘fiendish black cat’ looks on inquisitively. More of the latter later…



Dr Nikola and the Executioner’s Stick

Danish Film Institute
Mr Wetherell receives the Executioner’s Symbol of Office from China Pete (Danish Film Institute)

Dr Nikola has been trying to get hold of a Chinese executioner’s symbol of office, a small stick covered in Chinese inscriptions, which has amazing power and value.

To this end he kidnaps the lovely young Phyllis, the daughter of Mr Wetherell, the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. She is the ‘love interest’ for the narrator, the brave and bold Edward Braithwaite. After many thrills Phyllis is rescued but Nikola gains the stick. He announces:

‘Now, good-bye; in an hour I am off to effect a coup with this stick, the magnitude of which you would never dream. One last word of advice: pause a second time, I entreat, before you think of baulking Dr. Nikola.’

Weird Doctors: Introducing Dr Nikola

Guy Boothby (1867 – 1905), the Australian author of the ‘Dr Nikola’ series of stories combined tales of derring-do with the threat of a sinister power-crazed and mesmeric doctor.

See https://www.dfi.dk/en/viden-om-film/filmdatabasen/film/dr-nikola-i
Dr Nikola 1. Danish film 1909

In stature he was slightly above the ordinary, his shoulders were broad, his limbs perfectly shaped and plainly muscular, but very slim.

His head, which was magnificently set upon his shoulders, was adorned with a profusion of glossy black hair; his face was destitute of beard or moustache, and was of oval shape and handsome moulding.

His skin was of a dark olive hue, a colour which harmonized well with his piercing black eyes and pearly teeth.

Needless to say, Dr Nikola appeared slightly foreign, and his gaze induced awe, love and fear. While his medical qualifications remained obscure, his powers  both to heal and harm were great, and included occult as well as scientific arts…



Disease Prevention in Dracula

Garlic bk pic

I’m not sure that garlic prevents all disease coming from the east, even if gothically originating from bats and snakes. But garlic is flowering in the woods and gardens now, so you won’t have to go to Amsterdam, as Professor Van Helsing did.

However, if you are self-isolating read ‘Dracula for Doctors’ – available from your favourite book sources. While I work on the sequel, which requires lots of attention to the unread collection of weird stories on my shelves…

Diagnosing Dracula’s Renfield: Cause of Death

Von Hippel-type clockwork trephine, London, 1901-19. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Before Renfield could die of his probable GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane) he unwisely lets Dracula into Dr Seward’s asylum, only to be knocked unconscious by him. Professor Van Helsing discovers ‘a depressed fracture of the skull, extending right up through the motor area’, and says:

“The rapidity of the suffusion shows the terrible nature of his injury. The whole motor area seems affected. The suffusion of the brain will increase quickly, so we must trephine at once or it may be too late.”

Bram Stoker’s surgeon brother Thornley Stoker had advised on this, being proud of his own success in trephination of a patient taken into the Dublin Richmond Asylum. This man, however, survived, whereas Renfield is abandoned by the medics as soon as he has revived enough to speak a bit.

Although this case is more neurologically advanced in description, as a plot point it was preceded by Sheridan Le Fanu, another Dublin author, in The House by the Churchyard (1863). His trepan (or trephine) is gothicly described as:

resembling the homely bit-and-brace, but slender, sinister, and quaint, with a murderous sort of elegance.

I think the trephine in the picture may not have been produced in time for Dr Seward, but the name of the maker seems very apt.


Diagnosing Dracula’s Renfield: Mania

In ‘Dracula’ Dr Seward considers that Renfield may be a homicidal maniac, probably with religious delusions. This corresponds with the real Dr Forbes Winslow’s view of Jack the Ripper.

From The Chemist and Drugist 1880
From The Chemist and Druggist 1881, Wellcome Images

Renfield explains his attack on Dr Seward:

“On one occasion I tried to kill him for the purpose of strengthening vital powers by the assimilation with my own body of his life through the medium of his blood, relying of course, upon the Scriptural phrase, ‘For the blood is the life.’ Though, indeed, the vendor of a certain nostrum has vulgarized the truism to the very point of contempt.”

An advertisement for the popular ‘nostrum’ is shown above. I wonder if Renfield had tried it for ‘sores’…





Diagnosing Dracula’s Renfield: Zoophagy

More from #Draculafordoctors: Dr Seward, the love-lorn Medical Superintendent, says:Zoophagy pic

My homicidal maniac is of a peculiar kind. I shall have to invent a new classification for him, and call him a zoophagous (life-eating) maniac. What he desires is to absorb as many lives as he can, and he has laid himself out to achieve it in a cumulative way.

He gave many flies to one spider and many spiders to one bird, and then wanted a cat to eat the many birds. What would have been his later steps?

Peculiar eating habits were not uncommon in the nineteenth century asylums, the technical terminology being ‘pica’. I dare say there were various ways of trying to supplement the poor diet of the institutions.

As for an excellent sensation of horror – ‘disgust’ is most effective, just watch ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’!